The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is set to consider rare earth mineral legislation possibly as soon as this month. The bill, S. 1113, the Critical Minerals Policy Act of 2012, resulted from careful negotiations between the committee’s chairman and ranking member incorporating many ideas offered by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Senator Mark Udall (D-CO). Bipartisanship is at a premium in this town and the value of producing sensible and balanced policy is worth more than the minerals this bill intends to promote.
S. 1113 directs the Secretary of Interior to designate 10 critical minerals and develop and implement a series of studies and comprehensive regulatory reviews related to every aspect of the public input and environmental permitting process. This includes requiring the Secretary to create specific performance metrics designed to measure reductions in permit times for each stage of critical mineral mining operations. Studies are good. And government efficiency is too. The problem is that heavy-handed mandated reductions in permit approval times will reduce the ability of communities impacted by mining to voice their concerns.
And that’s the rub. Streamlining the permit process reduces community input. It also achieves nothing by way of increased investment or greater production. The industry loves to cite a recent study that shows the United States ranks 25th in permit approval times, tied for dead last with Papua New Guinea. In fact, listening to the hearings on the House critical minerals bill (HR 4402), you might think that Papua New Guinea is the world’s most backward, regressive nation. As if appearing on some list anywhere near Papua New Guinea is just a total embarrassment.
The very same study reports that the United States ranks sixth in the world in terms of attractiveness for mining investment. In fact, we are where the money is. The reason is that the 1872 Mining Law imposes almost no obligations on the mining industry and confers all the benefits. This country has a stable currency, and political, economic, and legal systems. For this reason, the Fraser Institute, a center-right think tank, confirms that domestic environmental regulations are actually a competitive advantage. So, let’s not make this a debate about permit approval times.
This is instead a debate about geopolitics and the international commodities markets. China, through unfair trade practices, has manipulated the market on rare earth mineral production. These materials are essential for the production of everything from sophisticated electronics to clean energy technologies and military applications. Addressing delicate foreign trade issues should occur through those institutions created for that purpose. And the Obama Administration is pursuing China at the World Trade Organization.
Federal legislation like S. 1113 should encourage recycling, reuse, study, and alternatives. The bill contains generous grant programs to universities and research institutions to develop ways to get better use from our domestic resources. But silencing the voices of communities facing the potential for toxic water contamination in perpetuity will not help ease market conditions nor settle trade disputes. Softening environmental protections weakens our nation and its global competitiveness. Our strength comes from empowering communities and protecting our natural resources.